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Senior Japan health official in hot water over 'Godzilla' coronavirus cough joke

A government building housing the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is seen in Tokyo's Kasumigaseki district. (Mainichi/Kimi Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- Japan health minister Katsunobu Kato said Feb. 20 that punishment would be considered for a health official who joked to residents at a meeting on accepting coronavirus-infected patients that their coughs wouldn't be big enough to spread the virus a long way, unless they were Godzilla.

The joke was made on Feb. 18 by Kaname Kanai, director-general of the Tokai-Hokuriku Regional Bureau of Health and Welfare, at a meeting with residents in the city of Okazaki in the central Japan prefecture of Aichi. Residents had gathered to receive an explanation on accepting coronavirus-infected patients from the Diamond Princess cruise ship into Fujita Health University Okazaki Medical Center in the city.

Kanai explained to residents that the new virus was spread by droplet transmission and that people wouldn't be infected unless they touched it directly. He then said, "No one is going to cough so hard that it spreads a very long way, unless they are Godzilla."

The director-general followed up with an apology, saying, "That last bit was just a joke. You are allowed to laugh." Residents, however, reportedly responded coolly with one saying, "I can't laugh at that."

At a meeting of the House of Representatives Budget Committee on Feb. 20, Kensuke Onishi, a member of the opposition Democratic Party for the People, criticized Kanai's comment as rude and lacking a sense of tension. In response, Kato commented, "At a meeting attended by anxious residents, it was completely inappropriate to elicit laughter, and it was an unsatisfactory remark." The minister of health, labor and welfare indicated that he would consider punishing Kanai.

(Japanese original by Daisuke Nohara, Political News Department)

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